Category Archives: Background

Dogs around the longhouse site – Sa 14.4

Continuing my review of the immediate archaeological surroundings of Kvarnbohall, besides the large cemetery of Sa 14.1 that I discussed in my last post, there is another Late Iron Age cemetery to be found in the 400 m radius from the longhouse site – the site that is officially named Sa 14.4 and unofficially known as the southern cemetery of Kvarnbo Kohagen. However, if I would have chosen the radius of 500 m instead of 400 m, in addition to the mentioned two, three more Late Iron Age cemeteries would have made the cut into the description of the archaeological background of the region!

Sa 14.4 dog

The central part of the burial mound nr 36 with an almost complete skeleton of a large dog and two clay pots at its head end. While going through the bone material from the grave, jawbones of a smaller dog were documented as well. From: Dreijer 1958.

The grave field of Sa 14.4 is situated north from the longhouse site, on the other shore of what was once a low bay north of Kvarnbohall. During landscape surveys in 1930, E.W. Drake and C. Ramsdahl counted 33 grave mounds at this cemetery, but 4 more mounds were documented at the site in the end of 1950s. Matts Dreijer has investigated 4 structures at Sa 14.4 and it is remarkable that in one of the investigated mounds (mound nr 36) he found an almost whole skeleton of a large dog lying on its left side with head to the east and two clay pots at its head end. Actually, there were two dogs buried in the mound as jawbones of a smaller dog were discovered as well. At the same time, there were no human bones in this grave.

From the period known as Late Iron Age in the northern Europe, i.e. 550-1050 AD, there is a large corpus of dog bones from graves, cremations as well as inhumations.  Dogs are found both in men’s and in women’s graves, in high status and in low status burials, and are often interpreted in the context of being faithful and loyal companions or as a token of social status, but, also, ascribed an important symbolic-mythological meaning with relation to the transformation from life to death. But separate dog graves are quite rare in the northern Europe. Separate dog graves are found on the Continent and England, but in northern Europe graves of only dogs are very uncommon: in the synthesis article from 1992, Wietske Prummel* mentions only one separate dog grave from the northern Europe – from Kjuloholm inhumation cemetery in Finland.

Thus, the separate dog grave documented at the grave field of Sa 14.4 is indeed remarkable. But what makes the whole thing even more notable is the fact that this is not the only separate dog burial known from the Late Iron Age Åland! In 1937, among others, a separate dog grave was investigated in Pålsböle and in Svartsmara, both in the municipality of Finström. Now, while the dog burial in Svartsmara might be a secondary burial into the Late Iron Age burial mound, the burials in Kvarnbo Kohagen and Pålsböle are from the Late Iron Age. It is just to admit that the Iron Age on the Åland islands is something Pretty Darn Interesting 😀

Prummel , W. 1992. Early Medieval dog burials among the Germaic tribes. Helinium, XXXII/1-2, 132-194. The article is also readily available online –

Archaeological surroundings of Kvarnbohall – Sa 14.1

IK 115Just about 100 m southeast from the longhouse site, there is one of the largest Late Iron Age graveyards on Åland – Sa 14.1. During landscape surveys in 1930, E.W. Drake and C. Ramsdahl counted 134 grave mounds at this grave field and the only overview map of this site – IK 115 – still in use, is compiled by them at that time. Thus, this map is missing information on the exact number of visible grave mounds as after the landscape surveys in 1970s, there were already around 170 mounds estimated, but even more graves hypothesized at the site; and according to the official information today, there are about 180 visible grave mounds at this site. In comparison to the existing overview map, the majority of the un-mapped and “newly discovered” graves are on the northern side of the site, but, also, on the areas bordering the fields on the southern side of the site.

The grave field of Sa 14.1 has been studied on a number of occasions, f.ex. 14 mounds were excavated during 1970-74 and 1981; unfortunately, the documentation of these excavations is pretty poor as most of the feature reports were written years after the excavations relaying on the diary entries. While the excavations in 1981 were conducted in the northern part of the site and in connection to the house construction in the vicinity, the excavations during 1970s were a part of the summer course in archaeology and the graves excavated are located in the southeastern part of the cemetery. In my opinion, the most noteworthy outcome of the excavations at Sa 14.1 was not the number and/or the character of the artifacts found, but the observations made in regard to one of the grave mounds studied – grave mound nr 1. Grave mound nr 1 is about 12 m in diameter and, thereby, the largest of the ones excavated (but not the largest mound at the site). There were traces of plowing in three-four different directions documented under the mound. So, either the grave(s) was situated in the area used for agricultural purposes before it became a graveyard territory or these traces have come as a result of ritual activities immediately before the burial. In either case, the choice to build a burial mound on an older agricultural area or through ritual activities kind of creating an agricultural area under the intended burial mound, it might be interpreted as a way to connect the person to be buried in the mound to the ancestors and their agricultural activities – and, thereby, manifesting the surviving family’s entitlement to the land.

The Late Iron Age grave fields on Åland are generally interpreted as single farm cemeteries and no villages are suggested for the prehistoric Åland. But the grave field of Sa 14.1 seems in my opinion far too large to belong just to one farm. I do dare to suggest that it is a village cemetery 😉 Furthermore, Sa 14.1 is not the only large graveyard on Åland; especially, in the municipality of Saltvik there are number of large Late Iron Age grave fields. Thus, the question of single farms and villages is far from being clear in regard to Iron Age Åland.

Archaeological surroundings of Kvarnbohall – Sa 19.5

Known ancient monuments in the vicinity of Kvarnbohall (Sa 14.9)

Ancient monuments known and registered in the vicinity of Kvarnbohall (Sa 14.9)

Last week, my work at the Museum of Åland brought me close to my hall 🙂 – I conducted archaeological monitoring during the installation of pipes in the area just about 350 m southwest from the longhouse site, at the site called Sa 19.5. The site is located directly by the former east-west waterway, on the southern bank and, thereby, opposite to the longhouse site on the northern side. Looking at the map today, it seems weird that Sa 19.5 is not part of the village of Kvarnbo, belonging instead to the village of Liby. But, while imagining this former waterway, the separation makes totally sense.

Ornamented animal-shaped brooch, ÅM 148

Ornamented animal-head shaped brooch, ÅM 148

The fact is that Kvarnbohall is situated in a generally archaeology-rich area. Just within a 400 m radius from the site, there are 6 (!) other archaeological sites registered, all of which have also been investigated to a varying degree. And Sa 19.5 is one of these. This site was discovered as a result of a find of an ornamented animal-head shaped brooch characteristic to Viking Age Gotland (ÅM 148) that came into the Museum of Åland in 1944. Such brooches are not unique, but the fact is that these brooches are argued to have been made almost exclusively on the island of Gotland, Sweden. Thus, if such brooches are found outside of their area of origin, they witness movement and contact in Viking Age societies. The brooch on Åland was found while digging for the dwelling house foundation and minor archaeological excavations conducted by Matts Dreijer in the vicinity of that house in 1945 established a proper cultural layer with finds of, among other things, iron tools and wattle-and-daub. Emanating from the site location in relation to the estimated site-contemporary shoreline, Sa 19.5 was interpreted as a Viking Age beach camp. Unfortunately, the exact extent of the site is still considered unknown.

What I identified during the archaeological monitoring at Sa 19.5 coincided with the earlier observations – in the 1,2 m deep, but only 0,5 m wide trench dug directly to the east from the corner of the house there was a cultural layer of quite so impressive dimensions. As deepest, it was 0,7 m thick and generated typical material for a settlement area: pieces of wattle-and-daub, burnt and unburnt animal bones as well as heat-shattered stones. In the trench section, a number of archaeological features were visible including one possible hearth. Besides, I could demarcate the extent of the cultural layer towards east. In addition, it was encouraging to find out that the current landowner is really positive towards archaeology welcoming archaeological ventures, and, trust me, I would gladly investigate Sa 19.5 as I am sure, the site is connected to a watercraft landing site 😉 (and maritime landing sites are, after all, something I happen to be very interested in), furthermore, as Sa 19.5 seems to date to the same period as Kvarnbohall, these two sites close to each other are hardly totally unconnected.

Birka spooking

Matts Dreijer's vision of Kvarnbo as Birka. From Dreijer 1988

Matts Dreijer’s vision of Kvarnbo as Birka with the earthern wall surrounding the St. Maria church of Saltvik and the black cultural layer around it. From Dreijer 1988

“Viking Age trading place Birka was located in Saltvik, Åland, not on Björkö in the Swedish lake Mälaren” – this was the conclusion that made Matts Dreijer into a scandalous figure among Fennoscandian archaeologists. And guess where he placed this trading place? 😉 – yes, at Kvarnbo! Dreijer worked hard in order to argue for Kvarnbo on Åland being Birka, the important trading center which handled goods from Scandinavia as well as Central and Eastern Europe and the Orient. Building up his narrative, Dreijer’s starting point was the absence of early Christian graves on Åland (that are otherwise common in the Late Iron Age cemeteries in the Baltic Sea region) together with the written text called Vita Ansgari (The life of Ansgar) describing the missionary work of Ansgar around 830 AD at Birka, the first known Christian congregation site. And, long story short, putting these two things together, Dreijer concluded that Åland was the first territory to be Christianized in this part of the Baltic Sea region and a bridgehead for Christianizing the surrounding areas. Kvarnbo as Birka emerges from the archaeological point of view owing to the thick cultural layer with Viking Age finds documented not only around the church, but also underneath it, without direct parallels around other churches on Åland. Also, thanks to postholes documented under the floor of the church indicating a wooden building before the stone church was built. A find of a continental silver coin from the 11th century (the only continental coin found on Åland belonging to the late Viking Age and early medieval times) and a small lead cross from the same, wooden-building-before-the-stone-church context were lifted in the argument as well. Dreijer also saw a crescent-shaped earthen wall surrounding the church and the area with the black cultural layer.

Dreijer’s writings in general are very assertive; he just draws conclusions telling us “how it actually was” without really discussing any other possibilities and/or explanations, there isn’t much source-criticism in his work. And in many cases it makes it difficult to distinguish which parts of Dreijer’s narratives are actually based on facts and which ones constitute his own opinion. Dreijer’s love for Åland, however, is salient in his work and there is no doubt that his historical interpretations were often motivated by some kind of nation building – in order to advocate the Ålandic, to prove the existence of grand heritage was considered a necessity. Such political dimension in the academic work would be outrageous and not accepted in today’s archaeology, but when the provincial government on Åland appointed Dreijer as an archaeologist during the inter-war period, according to Dreijer’s autobiography published in 1984, it was done with the deliberate aim of protecting the island’s autonomy by strengthening the Ålandic identity (!)

I am definitely not placing Viking Age trading place Birka to Åland, but there is a number of intriguing aspects and a growing amount of evidence supporting the hypothesis of Kvarnbo in Saltvik being a place of not a very ordinary character, to say the least. The results of the metal detecting survey constitute a piece in solving this puzzle and very shortly I will present the finds that will explain, why I found it enthralling to introduce Dreijer’s conclusions 😉

Coming and going and coming and?

The events in the end of the Late Iron Age on Åland as portrayed by researchers provide a great deal of inspirational drama for the movie 🙂 – the plot might be centered around hypotheses about historical events or on fractions these cause(d) among scholars. It all started in 1980s….

movingIn 1980, Lars Hellberg published his research on place-names and the Swedish settlement on Åland (Ortnamnen och den svenska bosättningen på Åland). He concluded that Åland – having had an unusually dense (Swedish) population during LIA – was for some unknown reasons depopulated in the late 10th century. About 150 years later and initiated by the state of Sweden, there was a rapid (re-)colonization of the archipelago. And when the Swedes came, they pushed out or “swedified” the sparse Finnish population that had managed to establish itself on Åland during the intermediate period.

Less dramatically and mainly on the basis of the archaeological material, the idea about depopulation and (Swedish) re-colonization of Åland has actually been suggested already before 1980s. However, the idea was then found unlikely by archaeologists such as Ella Kivikoski. Using house foundations as a supporting source material, Kivikoski was firm on the continuity of settlement and culture on Åland. But when Hellberg stated the hiatus idea some 20 years later, it sparked heated debate.

Hellberg’s understanding was bound to irritate Matts Dreijer, who had from the beginning of his career stated that Åland was one of the earliest Christianized lands in this part of the Baltic Sea region, and had had an important role to play in the Christianization of the surrounding territories – no way that it was depopulated! But many other researchers took the floor as well. For example, Erik Bertell could be mentioned putting forward evidence against the settlement discontinuity theories; and the work of Birgitta Roeck Hansen must be introduced. Cultural-geographer Roeck Hansen’s research had its starting point in the question of continuity or discontinuity between LIA and early medieval period and resulted 1991 in the dissertation titled Township and Territory: A study of rural land-use and settlement patterns in Åland c AD 500-1550. Roeck Hansen studied patterns in the settlement development using old maps, shore displacement models and place-names; she also conducted minor archaeological excavations. As the result of her studies, Roeck Hansen dismissed the hiatus demonstrating, among other things, the LIA origin of many place-names. But she did argue for the partial abandonment of settlement due to the culturally peripheral position of Åland in the end of the LIA as well as because of the worsening climatic conditions and positive shore displacement that blocked many waterways.

moving_2Roeck Hansen’s statements on settlement continuity were, however, considered to be supported just by indicia and, therefore, not really reckoned with, which is clearly exemplified, for example, by the research of Lars Huldén, one of the leading figures in the place-name research in Finland. And when the Grand Old Man of the place-name research himself states that the oldest settlement names on Åland are undoubtedly and consistently of medieval character, which does not match with the idea of unbroken (Swedish) settlement at all, depopulation and later “invasion” must be the case (I’m sarcastic here). To be continued….

Fluctuating shorelines

Isobases for recent movements in the Baltic Sea region. From Ekman 2001.

Isobases for recent movements in the Baltic Sea region. From Ekman 2001.

Baltic Sea is the largest body of brackish water in the world. It occupies a basin formed by glacial erosion during the last few ice ages. As the Baltic Sea does not come from the collision of the earth plates but is a glacially scoured river valley, it is a shallow sea with an average of only 55 m of depth. And the reason for the very existence of this sea – the Ice Age is actually constantly present in the archaeology of the region, no matter of the time period of study. This is because of the Ice Age being the reason for the phenomenon called shore displacement that is constantly changing the shorelines of the Baltic Sea region. During the Ice Age, the earth’s crust was pressed down by the ice, and after the melting of the ice, the crust is striving to attain its former level. Thus, the shore displacement comprises changes of the earth crust but also changes of the world sea (isostatic resp. eostatic changes of the shoreline), which result in transgressions and regressions of the water level – in fluctuating shorelines. The ice-sheet was thickest and thereby heaviest on the territories of the central and northern Baltic Sea region and the land still rises in these areas; while on the southern territories of the Baltic Sea, eustatic changes, i.e. the rise of the water level has been and still is characteristic leading to the submerged shorelines.

Åland around 5000 BC. From Stenbäck 2003

Åland around 5000 BC. From Stenbäck 2003

Most of the coastal landscapes of the Baltic Sea region were ice-free from around 13.500 BC. But as large parts of Åland are very low – the highest point, Orrdalsklint, being only about 130 m above sea level – we can talk about first people on Åland only from the end of the Mesolithic period, from around 5500-5000 BC, when there was a land to dwell on and the sea stood about 55 m higher than today. From the cognitive point of view, it is quite so fascinating that one just has to go to the outer archipelago of the central or northern Baltic Sea region to meet a newborn landscape very similar to that of thousands of years ago met by first inhabitants of, among others, the Åland Islands…

Newborn landscape in the eastern archipelago of Sweden

Newborn landscape in the outer archipelago of eastern Sweden

The data for recent movements in the earth’s crust are known fairly exactly. It is on this basis, the reconstructions of the shorelines at different times are generated. For example, Åland is today experiencing isostatic rebound of approx. 5 mm per year meaning that 100 years ago the water level was about 50 cm higher and 1000 years ago it was about 5 m higher. However, the process of shore displacement through time has not been linear and steady, it varies between different places and the crust has moved irregularly. Furthermore, it has slowed down considerably if compared with the beginning of this process. Therefore, a certain level, say 5 m above sea level, isn’t characteristic for the whole of Åland at some point of time, there are local differences. And case-to-case approach must be applied in the archaeological studies on a more specific level (say, when you happen to be interested in finding out how close a certain longhouse-like feature in Saltvik really was to a site-contemporary shoreline).

A land in between

Scandinavia and the World:

Scandinavia and the World:

I think it is only justified to start with a brief overview of what is Åland about. First and foremost, today, it’s an archipelago of 6757 islands between Sweden and Finland. The archipelago is made up of rock slopes, heather moorland and pine forests with only about 9% (!) of land area being arable land. And there are additional 20,000 islands sized less than 0.25 hectares that are also part of the archipelago. However, those numbers are not static because of the ongoing shore displacement resulting in raised shorelines on Åland (shore displacement is an important phenomenon for the archaeology in the Baltic Sea region and I will clarify some aspects connected to it in my next post).

The population of Åland is about 28,000 – one third lives in Mariehamn, founded in 1851. Only c. 60 islands are inhabited, and the population density is approx. 18 people per km². Confusingly enough, although Åland is a part of Finland, the people of Åland speak Swedish that is an official language and there are, seriously, some people on Åland who throw a temper tantrum every time they see or hear the Finnish language… . Åland is also autonomous with its own devolved parliament and with its own flag of blue with a red Scandinavian cross fimbriated yellow.  Åland is demilitarized and neutralized, and has staggering 16 municipalities and 6 or so political parties. Åland is like “a country of its own”.

– How did it come to all of that? Well, for a long time, Åland was, along with Finland, a part of Sweden. But Sweden was forced to relinquish Finland and Åland to the Russian Empire in 1809. In 1917, when Finland gained its independence, the people of Åland wanted reunion with Sweden, but Finland rejected these demands, which led to the fact that an open conflict between Finland and Sweden was in the air. The question was solved by the newly formed League of Nations who granted Finland sovereignty over Åland in 1921, with an obligation to guarantee the people of Åland their use of Swedish language, their very Swedish culture as well as the system of self-government. In any case, becoming autonomous pretty much just fell into the arms of Åland.

Thus, Åland is also like “Sweden Light”; however, there is no question which ice-hockey team the people of Åland support when Finland and Sweden (or any other country for that matter) play against each other 😉 (Leijonat!)

You’ll find more numbers on Åland (in Swedish) at: